The Israel Cycling Academy's Guy Niv and Guy Sagiv made history last week as the first Israelis to start a Grand Tour, now the pressure is on to become the first Israelis to finish the Giro d'Italia in Rome.
The team's decision to pick two Israeli riders was a surprise in light of the recruits they brought on board the team this year, and after the team's own pronouncement that just one Israeli rider would make the Giro roster. But this team has always done things differently, and bringing two Israelis and pledging their teammates' support to help them make it to the finish is part of the team's development mission.
"To be honest, I was a little bit surprised, yeah, because all season they were talking about only one Israeli," said Sagiv, the 23-year-old Israeli time trial champion. "But I know we've both had good seasons so far and they had a hard decision to make. Eventually they chose both of us. I think it was the right decision. I was surprised, but I think it's the right decision."
The team's five Israeli riders have been under stress for months since the team received its Giro wildcard invitation. The pressure to make the team and by doing so make history was intense, according to both Sagiv and Niv, and there was only a brief moment to enjoy that accomplishment before the reality of starting a Grand Tour set in.
"I haven't stopped thinking about it since the moment I got the message," Sagiv said of the daunting task he's undertaking. "It was a quite intense few months. But that's decided and now I need to start the suffering. But I wanted it and that's my job, yeah? It's all good. It's a good pressure."
Rock Star Treatment
Sagiv was the first of the two riders to start the opening time trial in Jerusalem, and in his Israeli national champion's kit he drew massive support from the large crowds along the route. The reaction among spectators toward the 'Two Guys,' as they are now affectionately known in Israel, is usually reserved for cycling names like Froome, Dumoulin or Sagan.
"I felt the ground tremble when I started," said Sagiv. "It was an experience I've never had before. I started and all the crowd was cheering for me along the whole course. I was shocked. We are not used to that. I am not used to it.
"We're not used to getting so much attention from the Israeli media," Sagiv said. "Normally cycling is not the most popular sport, but now it's become more and more, and it's really important. That's one of our goals."
Neither of the Guys' performances in the time trial was earth-shattering: Sagiv finished 162nd, 1:45 back, while Niv was 167th at 1:49. But the importance of their efforts can't be measured in results alone.
"The concept was to use this beautiful platform, these great athletes, this amazing opportunity from the media and this special edition of the Giro to inspire an entire generation of new cyclists," said team General Manager Ran Margaliot.
Giro or bust
This Giro d'Italia start was especially meaningful for Niv, the 24-year-old former mountain biker who entered his first UCI race last year at the Tour of Utah, about the same time word began to spread about the Giro's planned start this year in Jerusalem. Niv said he switched discipline's specifically to try and make the Giro start line.
"To be honest, yes," Niv said when asked if he thought a Giro start was possible a year ago when he started road racing. "It was one of the reasons I chose to focus on the road discipline. I saw myself on the start line of the Giro – I know it sounds weird to dream of this kind of thing when you started racing pro races only one year ago, but I really believe in myself and that I could make it."
Niv is quiet with an earnest manner, and although he is one of the smaller riders on the team, his heart and desire are among the strongest. In a little more than a year on the team, he has earned the respect of his teammates.
"I met Guy about a year and a half ago," said teammate Zak Demspter. "From the get go, he is a gentle person but also very direct, and that shines though in the way he rides with the team and how he operates."
Niv's route to the Giro was not a direct one from junior cycling star to espoirs and then pro. After two tough years in the junior ranks in mountain biking, Niv questioned whether his dream of becoming a pro cyclist was realistic. He chose to start his obligatory military service without trying to get in a program for athletes that allows them time to train full time, choosing instead to enter an elite special unit in the Israeli army. But after six months he decided he gave up on his dream to quickly.
"So I decided to leave the unit and go back to cycling," Niv said. "It sounds now easy, but trust me, it was not easy. It was not an easy decision and it was not an easy process. Because when you go out of this kind of unit, you can go back immediately to the Excellence Athletes program, but you need some luck and also help from some other people. I'm happy that I made it back and was able to continue my military service as an Excellence Athlete."
Before Niv could leave his unit and go into the athletic program, however, he had to prove his aptitude as a rider at the cross-country national championships after just two months of training. Niv had to land on the podium to keep his cycling dream alive.
"If I did that I could get back into the Excellence Athletes program, and if not I would continue regular military service," he said. "Luckily I was able to finish third after only two months of training. While I was in the special unit I didn't ride for six to seven months. It was a really nervous moment, but then I got back to the normal life as an athlete in the army."
Now, as a member of the first Israeli pro cycling team, making history as one of the first Israelis to start a Grand Tour – and doing it in Jerusalem – Niv knows all the struggles paid off.
"Serving the country meant a lot to me," he said. "That's why I wanted to be in one of those units. But now when I'm about to start the Giro in Israel and represent my country, I feel the same honour, and I'm really happy to have this opportunity."